I wish my pictures had come in before this project was due, as those observations I made of Italy are the closest to life and the closest I’ll ever be to reliving the beauty of this trip. Nonetheless, these words are still a powerful second best, and a necessary reflection of my once unspoken turn of thoughts, enjoy.
The flavian amphitheater, more widely known as the colosseum, is the most recognizable masterpiece of ancient roman remnants. It is a true masterpiece of boastful displays in technological advancements in architecture and engineering as well as one of the first gifts to the Roman people. Vespasian, the emperor responsible for the curation of the amphitheater that began in 72 AD, recognized the issues the public had with the former Emperor, Nero, that eventually led to his condemnation to death and eventual suicide and he sought to improve the moral of the people. He saw the issues that were created from Nero’s ostentatious displays of wealth and the disparities they created between the wealthy patricians and poor plebeians which created an atmosphere of civil unrest. Rather than flaunt the wealth granted by the position of the emperor, Vespasian decided to give back to the Roman citizens with the gift of entertainment with an extravagant and massive amphitheater as a symbolic unification of the Roman people. While it was a cruel form of entertainment, compared to modern ones, resulting in the death of countless animals, civilians, and gladiators, but it was an effective one that drew massive crowds nearing 100,000 people to the stands at a time. When visiting this place and imagining the daily constant slaughter that spanned for 4 centuries, the question of morality was raised. Did knowledge and insight granted in the near 2000 year gap from the start of the colosseum change our views on how we choose to satisfy our innate primitive desire to be entertained or even the equality of each mortal life, or our modern culture still enjoys the same themes of vicious chaos, but in a more acceptable masqueraded way, even today? Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that I, just the same as countless others, am attracted to chaos as it breaks the routine and expected mundanity of modern life and is incredibly apparent everywhere in a more censored and palpable way. But rather than focus on the obvious and gruesome massacres, my mind focused completely on the more subtle morality surrounding construction of the amphitheater.
Seeing it in person reveals the true marvel of its spectacle, it’s massive, especially since it is a product of the ancient world, but even today the ability to host 80,000 people in a single place is no small task. I was beyond myself when I learned that it took only 8 years to complete the massive structure I found myself standing in. Especially when I’ve witnessed what an embarrassing 8 years of construction looks like back home on a seemingly never ending project of the Miami expressways, even with the addition of 2000 years of technology. However, it was apparent that the construction of this spectacle in its short period was only made possible because of slavery. Which conceived the absurd moral dilemma in my head, “Was slavery a good thing?” The obvious answer was a quick and sharp no with a disbelief I had allowed my mind to even speculate that question, but upon further review it sparked an inner dialogue I had never imagined having with myself. Yes, slavery was one of the worst things created by humanity as it degraded the value of another human life with cruel and unjust treatment followed by torturous unpaid labor, this notion has been firmly implanted through years of education discussing the atrocity that it was, but on the other hand this was unpaid labor. This granted the opportunity to complete far more work with essentially only the cost of the materials. Additionally, since morality had not been discussed at this time and labor laws were nonexistent, these slaves were constantly working. Weekend breaks didn’t exist, overtime was unheard of, these slaves had the simple choice of laborious misery with the slight chance of their liberation or death. In an attempt to slightly justify ancient Roman slavery, my research uncovered that, contrary to slavery in America, it wasn’t based on race but rather a majority of slaves were prisoners of war that were often given the chance to buy their freedom and become full fledged roman citizens after years of compliance. So the result, after centuries of its practice, didn’t create a system of oppression, but rather created marvels people from far and wide travel thousands of miles to see. An estimated 100,000 prisoners as a result of the war with Judea allowed Vespasian to have an essentially limitless workforce to complete a project that would otherwise take decades to complete, even today, in 8 short years. I’m sure my perspective would have differed slightly had I been one of these poor souls working endless hours for 8 seemingly never ending years, but after witnessing the consequence of their non consensual sacrifice that still stands nearly 2000 years later, I have a newfound appreciation for what slavery was able to achieve.
It’s a quite admiration
A gentle and proud observation of years of innovative splendor
A fleeting moment in time built up from centuries of tenacity
A hovering sun kissing the edge of an endless world
A warm orange glow, pink, purple, then black
Drunken smiles of stupid irrelevant happiness
A presumptuous disrupted silence and a diverted attention
Cultural disparity equating to a missed focus
Contrary to popular misinformed belief, the Piazzale Michelangelo was designed and created centuries after the fall of the renaissance not by its titular Michelangelo but rather architect Giuseppe Poggi in 1869. At the time of its creation, Florence was the capital of Italy and was undergoing a process of “urban renewal.” Its creation conceived an unmatched panoramic view of all of Florence and the Arno river that runs alongside it in the hill directly adjacent to the town center that seems to hover perfectly over all the beauty that is Florence. A few years after the completion of its construction in 1873, a bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David was escorted by oxen to the square in reverence of its titular figure. The same one that is visible from the top of Brunelleschi’s dome and looms even higher above its peak sparked my reluctance to climb even more steps with my already aching thighs.
Walking up the steps to the Piazzale was a gradual transition, occasionally looking back at the enhanced view every couple of seconds as we made upward progress, the view of the city growing more and more each time. The distance was beautiful. It was a different view from that of the dome because of this distance created from the city. It granted the perspective of the city from afar, rather than being elevated and engulfed by the city from the view the dome grants. We made a pit stop at the elusive rose garden that even Bailly had yet to see. This is where the vast cultural difference between America and Italy became clear to me, which was later amplified when we finally reached the top where the Piazzale resides. There’s an insatiable drive in American culture that serves to consistently outperform oneself without ever experiencing a brief pause, never a moment to appreciate the magnitude of the achievements accomplished. This was the essence of the Piazzale Michelangelo, it’s the spot dedicated to quietly admire the sheer volume of revolutionary works in florence from the perfect panoramic vantage point capable of seeing each of them with the necessary distance. Our American culture is so focused on our capitalist greed to be able to feed our never ending empty desires of “success,” that we fabricate a sense of happiness we believe is emanated from success until we truly, but often never, feel that happiness. The perverted Puritan work ethic, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” that fuels us to break our own backs in the workplace, working an average of 1,790 a year compared to the European 1,482 (Close) and never being able to fully appreciate what we’ve accomplished. The Piazzale serves as a reminder to wholly separate ourselves and take pride and on what we’ve been able to achieve.
“Scusa signora, la playa?”
“Is over there, with e-ve-ry-won else.”
Unfair colors scattered haphazardly among a small town beaming with life. I first saw it from a distance. It was the oasis calling to me that promised a break from the scorching day. A town with a playful sound that traveled to the tops of the mountains, beckoning, come. Vernazza, a town saturated with color and rich history. The word “Vernazza” comes from the Latin adjective “verna”, which ironically translates to local, native. Its origin dates back to around the year 1080 AD, where it was a powerful addition to the Republic of Genoa, supplying a large number of well trained soldiers and a powerful fleet. Centuries later in the 1800’s after the period decline Cinque Terre experienced locals increased the sizes of their terrace carve on the mountainsides where wine grapes, lemons, and basil grew ,consequently their economies recovered. Vernazza had remained a sort of hidden gem until 1997 when all of Cinque Terre was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco.
We gradually made our way down the trail, trading the steep narrow dirt path for a wider paved one. The playful sound grew louder transforming into a more distinguishable noise of hundreds of voices, chattering. At first I never felt like an intruder; I was just like one of the hundreds, maybe thousands around me enjoying perfectly salty breeze and the deepest shades of blue I had ever seen for the limited time I was lucky enough to have in Vernazza.
We stopped for some wine and snacks at the only store in the tiny town we had a slight sense of familiarity with at this point, Coop. A peach, a bag of chips, and a 2 euro bottle of rose, a compromise for my dwindling budget I later regret making.
“Where’s the sticker?
“The sticker for pesca”
His eyes dart up to mine telling me what his mouth wouldn’t dare to say, “The fucking sticker you idiot, the one that allows you to pay for your godamn peach!” He gets up and paces towards the same spot where I first picked the peach, he rips the sticker off the now apparent conveyor of price stickers hovering above the pile of peaches I missed just moments before.
He annoyedly nods and brushes his hand in the air signaling to me again what his words wouldn’t, “Ok get the fuck out now.” Maybe I should’ve noticed then, but of course I didn’t. I was still too blinded by the beauty to realize or even care.
We left the store and began making our way over to the beach, a seemingly simple task in small town surrounded by water, but miraculously we ended up in a residential area and quite possibly the only one in all of Vernazza. We joked about how we would be the only ones capable of not being able to find the beach in a minute town literally surrounded by ocean, our laughs bouncing off the tight vibrant walls. We passed a woman sitting outside her front door quietly smoking a cigarette; she’ll know, we all thought. It’s almost as if we didn’t have to say anything- billowy pastel shirts, shorts, golden skin, rhythmically clacking sandals, backpacks, sunglasses- everything about us screamed, “Which way to the beach?” still one of us had to gather the courage to speak in broken Italian yet again.
“Scusa signora, la playa?”
She lazily dragged her unoccupied hand up, pointing finger, no smile, no eye contact, “Is over there, with e-ve-ry-won else.” every part of her saying, “Are all of you this stupid, its literally right over there.”
That was when it finally hit me. I hadn’t felt like an intruder because I was just part of the majority, one of the countless nameless faces the local people of this town were outnumbered by and had fatigued seeing everyday. They resented us, with good reason, we overtook their town with complete disregard for its authenticity and replaced it with overpriced uninventive replicas of authentic originals. We skyrocketed the prices of their homes, meals, and countless other goods for what? Colorful additions to our family albums, and social media pages without a single regard for the genuine culture of the land. Stripping natives of their homes and pushing them higher up on the hills to make room for the influx of tourists that grow with each coming year. It made me think about the potential harm to a culture tourism can cause, especially to a small one like that of Vernazza. Is there a balance that can exist where tourism and authenticity can happily coexist? Or is that just an impossible ideal?
“Hello, do you speak English?”
“This is prison.”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh Miami, I’m from Tunisia.”
“Tunisia oh cool…. What are you in there for?”
“Marijuana, three years. I’m on my eighth month.”
“Really, for drugs?”
“My wife has bad passport, she is still in Tunisia.”
“Do you have anternet? Can you speak to my brother?”
“No sorry, my phone is from America.”
“Ah no problem.”
“Ok, we’re going to go, good luck it was nice talking to you.”
“Ok, bye-bye have a nice holiday.”
It was difficult imagining a quiet Venice, especially after witnessing firsthand the energized bustle of the city right outside the train station where we first arrived. But nonetheless a serene quiet exists juxtaposed in the calamity that is the rest of Venice. Just a short fifteen minute walk south from the hectic train station lies Dorsoduro, a different world entirely. Its name, which translates to “hard backbone”, is taken from the harder soil found specifically in this sestiere of Venice. Just from the few hours I spent there, although I was still clearly in Venice walking alongside canals, over bridges, without a car in sight, it was vastly and strangely different from the rest of the island almost like I had entered an entirely different country. The veil of beauty manifested to keep its booming economy of tourism alive was nonexistent; almost needless to say, this part of Venice was still beautiful, but it was a different kind of beauty. It wasn’t a fabricated one; it was authentic. There was beauty in the rustling of clothing and sheets hanging outside each window to dry, the emptiness of each piazzale we trekked, cheerful prisoners squeezed in small windows greeting us as we passed by, the existence of lush green trees, bushes, and vines absent from the rest of the island. People live here.
The unspoken disbelief of the idea that people actually lived here dissolved as soon as I walked these streets. I hadn’t realized how difficult it was for me, a tourist who was little to no experience of travel, to accept that residents exist in these places thousands of people pay copious amounts of money just to see with their own eyes and believe they actually exist. It’s difficult to see beyond the facade every tourist-heavy city constructs as the idealized representation of their city. The same way a tourist visiting Miami would have a hard time believing my incredibly mundane perspective and distaste of the same place. But this is exactly what Dorsoduro was to the rest of Venice, normal. A beautiful normal and a necessary contrast in a tourist accommodated haven.
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Close, Kerry. “Work-Life Balance Is Better in Europe Than the US-Here’s Why.” Time, Time, 3 Jan. 2017, time.com/4620759/european-american-work-life-balance/.
Editors, History.com. “Colosseum.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/colosseum.
“History Vernazza Cinque Terre Italy.” Vernazza, www.vernazza.fr/en/history/.
Lissette, Frank. “Why Vernazza Is the Best Town in the Cinque Terre. And Thoughts on Rampant Tourism.” The Travels of BBQboy and Spanky, 30 May 2019, bbqboy.net/why-vernazza-is-the-best-town-in-the-cinque-terre-and-thoughts-on-rampant-tourism/.
“Piazzale Michelangelo of Florence – Useful Information.” Florence Museum, www.florence-museum.com/piazzale-michelangelo.php.
Seen, Site. “Building the Colosseum.” Building the Colosseum, www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/colosseum/building-the-colosseum.htm.
Staff, Insidecom. “Dorsoduro Venice Italy | Dorsoduro District Venice.” Dorsoduro Venice Italy | Dorsoduro District Venice, InsideCom S.r.l., 27 Jan. 2016, www.venetoinside.com/discover-veneto/venice-art-cities/venice/areas/dorsoduro/.